SAINTS & SUGAR MILLS 9-HOLE TRIO

MY UNEXPECTED DISCOVERY OF THREE GOLFING GEMS IN KZN MIDLANDS

Published by : Stuart McLean - 14 June 2024

When KZN farmer Piet Nel had finished designing and building his own 9-hole course he now had to give it a name. He had heard of St Andrews, so along those lines he called it St Cathryn’s. There is an Italian saint called St Catherine of Siena, but Piet named the course after his wife. I met Cathy in the clubhouse when she popped out of the kitchen where she was preparing dinner for guests staying at this picturesque “golf estate” on the R74 road between Greytown and Kranskop.

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The 12th green on the dam at St Cathryn’s, with estate homes in the background.

This area north of Maritzburg could be described as part of the KZN Midlands, although some distance from the touristy Midlands Meander and well-known Top 100 courses like Gowrie Farm and Bosch Hoek. I had been invited to play a triumvirate of 9-holers around Greytown which the local community believe are quite special. They had been surprised at the absence of all three of their courses from Golf Digest’s ranking of the 25 Best 9-Holers in our January / February issue.

The two main products which drive the local economy are timber and sugar cane, and on the beautiful drive over rolling countryside from Mooi River to Greytown – a quaint town offering a variety of activities – I passed through expansive pine tree forests. St Cathryn’s is 30 kilometres further down the twisting R74 which eventually takes you to the North Coast near Prince’s Grant. It’s an hour’s drive from Ballito.

Piet Nel built his course more than 30 years ago and while his estate never quite developed to his early expectations – there are a dozen or so homes plus self-catering cabins close to the clubhouse – it has become a popular destination for visitors who want to relax, play golf, ride the mountain bike trails, or do some bass fishing in the magnificent dam which is a feature of the property. On weekends there’s often a group of bikers who arrive for breakfast. Bird lovers have 250 species to try and identify.

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The deck of the St Cathryn’s clubhouse.

After the par-72 course opened in 1993, Cathy – who oversees the catering – designed a wooden sign to display at the entrance on the R74. It read Tee & Sand Wedges, and this is where the catchy term first appeared in South Africa. The title was later “appropriated” by a free golfing publication.

Piet’s layout is a remarkably good one for someone with no previous experience, especially as the landscape is undulating. A boer makes a plan. It’s fun to play, quirky, challenging and innovative. “It’s technical in places, particularly the par-5 fifth,” he explained, before sending me out for 9 on a golf cart.

I quickly concluded that Piet is keen for visitors to play more than 9 (R180 for 9 holes, R220 for 18), because there are two visibly different nines. Some greens have two flags, while two holes have separate greens. The greens were bumpy on my visit, but I enjoyed the variation of the holes. It was an enthralling ride most of the way round.

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The hole called Augusta. No 8/17 plays downhill to a two-tier green.

The third is a 228-metre par 4 bordering the dam, stretched to 293 the second time round, with another green further on. No 6 is an interesting hole, from a tee overlooking a large trout dam higher on the property. After driving across the dam to a sloping fairway there’s a green in view, but not the one for the first time round. You play over it, and another distant green appears – this is a 498m par 5.

All 18 holes have an eclectic mix of names, in English, German and Zulu, and No 8 is Augusta. I can see why Piet chose that, although second time around he calls it Louise? It’s a striking 278m downhiller through an avenue of tall pines. The fairway runs out at about 180 metres, and it’s best to lay up and play an approach shot over the entrance road to a two-tier green. Looking back from the green it’s a beautiful sight.

The wooden clubhouse at St Cathryn’s is a comfortable countryside venue, with an outside deck on the dam. An attractive setting in late afternoon as the sun sets. Inside there’s a cosy 19th, with good food on the menu. Cathy sources local products, some of it from the German community. The Hermannsburg private school is nearby – the country’s oldest co-ed school. Greytown was founded in the 1850s. On the deck I had beers with two members of the local German brass band.

Piet tells me that four local clubs – St Cathryn’s, Greytown, Noodsberg and Mooi River – have embraced a Quadrangular series where their members meet up four times a year, hosting an event at each of their courses. “It’s been great for the golfing community in the greater area.”

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The finishing hole (left) at Greytown is an excellent par 4. Right is one of the stone markers found on each tee.

HISTORIC GREYTOWN COUNTRY CLUB

Greytown Country Club is thought to be the third oldest (1895) golf club in KZN, and there’s a stately and tranquil aura around every part of it. It’s in a quiet upper part of town on a tree-lined avenue to Wembley College campus, an independent school founded in 1998 by one of the town’s biggest benefactors, the late Brian Corbishley.

I teed off the following morning with club captain Paddy O’Sullivan, who drew my attention to a large marker stone on the first tee. “There’s one on every hole, and we acquired them recently,” he said. An attractive feature of a course that at first glance looked lovingly cared for. The 1950s clubhouse has a spacious verandah, and oozed character inside. Downstairs I was shown two squash courts. Together with a bowling green this explains why it’s a country club.

This is a fabulous 9-holer (R250 for 18, R180 for 9), with beautifully designed holes and significantly attractive features, including a rocky flower bed on the sixth fairway which looks perfectly natural. It has an English countryside feel to it, particularly the par-3 third, with its oak tree as a backdrop and an old residence behind the green, part of Wembley. The second time around (No 12) you play on a different line to another green.

The town is built on a hillside, and the club is near the summit, so the holes rise and fall throughout the round. The scenery is stunning and trees line the fairways. Mostly pines, which provide an income for the club when they reach a certain age and are felled. Playing the fourth, the longest hole (521 from the back tee), which plunges down a hill, there was a clearing right of the fairway where there had been a pine plantation.

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The green of Greytown’s uphill par-3 third.

It’s a lengthy climb back up the hill from the fourth green all the way to the clubhouse, the steepest part being the 317-metre fifth, which has two giant oak trees guarding the entrance to the green. There’s a narrow gap past them if you drive far enough right, otherwise you have to play the approach over or under the trees.

The fourth is a lengthy green with quirky slopes on the left half, and the greens do have plenty of character to them. There are various grasses in the mottled greens, yet they putted well, an improvement on those at St Cathryn’s.

The holes back to the clubhouse are uniformly excellent, and the best of them is No 9, a 410m dogleg right closer with out-of-bounds on the corner of the dogleg, a downhill shot with the approach.

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Green of a strong Noodsberg hole. No 5/14 plays as both par 5 and par 4.

AUGUSTA COMPARISON TO NOODSBERG

After a morning 9 holes at Greytown I headed along the hilly R33 towards Maritzburg, before a detour to Dalton in the heart of sugar cane country. Illovo have a substantial sugar mill at nearby Noodsberg, where I discovered a remarkable gem of a golf course hidden away in the plantations. Unbelievably, the weekday green fee is R70 for 18 holes.

This is an historic area, first settled and named by the Voortrekkers in the 1830s. Nood means distress, which they were suffering at the time. Later settlers arrived from England and Germany, and the names of towns and villages in the area originated from them – Wartburg, Harburg and New Hanover.

When a golf course was built at Noodsberg Country Club in the late 1970s, one of the first trophies to be contested was the Shackle Cup for a match between the English and Germans. It is still played today, with as much fervour as the Ryder Cup. Traditional regalia continues to be worn, there’s a flag-raising ceremony, singing, and a braai afterwards. The club chairman is Kelvin Kaiser and club captain Jens Hillerman, an exceptional leftie who has won the club championship a record 14 times in the past 15 years. And he has twice shot a course record of 10-under 61.

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A stream crosses the fairway of par-4 fourth at Noodsberg.

I was unprepared for the beauty of Noodsberg CC. After leaving Dalton there were endless kilometres of sugar cane flanking the roadside. At a crossroads I turned into the mill and found myself driving along an attractive tree-lined avenue leading to the country club. Not quite Magnolia Lane, but impressive nonetheless, something rare for a South African golf club.

The clubhouse is charming too, with sunny rooms and a pleasant 19th hole, opened in 1978 at the same time as the golf course. There’s a large cricket oval adjoining the opening hole. Polo was the sport played here in earlier years but has disappeared today.

Admiring my surroundings, I was mostly at a loss to understand why it had taken me so long to visit Noodsberg. No one in my travels had told me this was up there in terms of quality with the best 9-hole courses in South Africa. Yet it isn’t well known outside the area, which says a lot about the reluctance of many golfers in this country to venture out to play 9-holers. More golfers should be exploring Noodsberg, Greytown and St Cathryn’s, because they make up a 3-day destination with a difference for tour groups. The Noodsberg Classic is a 2-day event in November.

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Tee shot over dam facing golfers on Noodsberg’s par-4 16th.

My reference to Magnolia Lane wasn’t far off the mark. Noodsberg is a heavily tree-lined course which reminded me in places of Augusta National. Positioning is important off the tee on the opening two par 4s. It also had firm, fast greens with subtle slopes. Royal Blue cynodon in exceptional condition. I was playing the day before the weekend club championships.

The stroke 1 wouldn’t be out of place at Augusta either. What a beautiful, challenging hole, played firstly (No 5) as a 455-metre par 5, then (No 14) a 385-metre par 4. There’s a stream to be crossed, after which the fairway threads between the pine trees and climbs to an elevated green. The following hole is a par 3 (6 & 15) which plays back down into the valley, similar to Nos 4 and 6 at Augusta.

The other par 3 (3 & 12) comprises two separate holes, alongside each other (110 & 153). Another innovative alternative occurs at 7 & 16. It’s firstly a long dogleg right 5 around a dam, then a brilliant 360m par 4 where you tee up on the dam wall and drive across the water to the fairway.

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